Thu. Sep 23rd, 2021


When novelists feel passionately, we write: we can’t help ourselves. Five years ago, I was so in love with my first garden that I wrote a book about it. Rhapsody In Green is a love letter to growing something, anything: from a straggling geranium on a balcony to a tiny city garden filled, as mine was, with a frankly ridiculous number of edible plants. Despite moments of lyricism, that book is chiefly a confession of obsessive passion and the perils of ineptitude; a paean to the beauty of green and the pleasures of greed; and a testament to the unceasing joy my laughable urban jungle gave me, despite my having no horticultural pedigree or much of a clue.

I described how I force-fed my six square metres of polluted soil with nutrients while yearning for manure; boycotted famous garden writers because of their orchards; stole broken trellis from skips for my climbing beans; tended my compost bins, plural, like newborn babies; fantasised about ponds and mulberries; bought, after enormous deliberation and research, a terrible cold frame. I became the New Yorker’s gardening correspondent; I even reached number 139 on the allotment waiting list.

Ornamental kale.
Ornamental kale. Photograph: Liz Seabrook/The Guardian

It was a folie-à-deux, possibly codependence, but my garden and I were happy. As with any all-consuming love, I couldn’t imagine a life without it.

Then everything changed. Life events, divorce, family illness make the past unrecognisable. Every loss brings shame. In my gardening column I talked of planting and harvesting but, painfully, I’d moved to a furnished flat down the road with space for both my teenagers and my books; but a lightless kitchen, no garden and two narrow, shady balconies. Hercules, our beloved black cat, twitched at pigeons from the back of the velour sofa. The removal men had shoved nine pots into the cab of their lorry. I fed my salvaged blackcurrant, and the increasingly bonsai-ed quince tree, tea leaves and mud from my shoes, like a besieged Leningrad housewife. That winter lasted two years.

A crocus in Charlotte’s allotment garden.
A crocus in Charlotte’s allotment garden. Photograph: Liz Seabrook/The Guardian

Thawing is painful. I began to ache for the decade’s worth of strange edible plants still growing in my lost garden; generations of guinea pig poo forked into the soil; the black gold souring in the compost bins; the greenhouse my son had built from stones and a plastic bag. I searched for a little brick house with a modest garden; a miniature of my old home. But this was London and I could afford only a flat, with a bare roof terrace, and metal stairs to a dark rectangle of ivy and bramble at the end of the downstairs tenant’s garden, in full view of her Bible study group. I kept hunting.

And then, many north-facing AstroTurfed abominations later, I had a revelation. The roof terrace could be my off-kitchen herb garden and the maelstrom downstairs my home allotment.

This time, the kind removal men couldn’t stop grinning. Before acquiring a table or sofa, I was out there pulling at the ivy in unsuitable footwear; hacking at the only vertical plant, an immense yucca, with a Woolworths junior saw. By January 2020, the ground was clear. Underneath that juicy ivy lay a partially paved nine-by-five-metre garden.

Tending to herb pots.
Tending to herb pots. Photograph: Liz Seabrook/The Guardian

There was only one problem. Proudly, I would show visitors my rolling 0.0111197 acre. The surviving pots stood on the roof terrace, like a promise of a garden, but when my friends peered over the balcony their faces fell. It was Passchendaele out there; an icy sea of mud, minus the nutritious corpses.

I had a garden, and no plants. I’d given away my seed packets; it was too expensive to replace the white currants and ginger rosemary I’d bought as romantic presents for my first garden. February dawned; I discovered the lady downstairs was adorable, open-minded and had planted three fruit trees against her knee-high picket fence, including, miraculously, a mulberry. Friends brought a Carolina allspice, a mystery vine, raspberry canes nicked from a famous guitarist. Hercules, rejuvenated, brought us a live mouse and, hours later, because of our tremulous thanks, a very pre-dead bird. I hung filthy gardening clothes in the kitchen; filled an old zinc bath, our pond of despair; planned parties.

Then Covid hit.

Hard as it has been, lonely, boring, painful, those with growing space are the lucky ones. We can still obsess over each plucky seedling; gather leaves for leaf mould; dream of sea buckthorn hedging. In lockdown, nature is succour; the gardener’s gaze makes everything interesting. Whether coveting new neighbours’ bean frames, gathering interestingly twisty sticks, scampering out in socks to pick oregano or overthinking salad, the sensory joys, the deep pleasure psychologists call flow, keeps us going. I spent much of the first two lockdowns replanting wild strawberry runners; learned that self-sufficiency is, without more land and time, impossible; found that epigenetic trauma and national hoarding meant I urgently had to replace all those seeds. Hercules died; we later obtained brother kittens, and a garden frog. My conker collection grew; our houseplants pleaded for some time alone.

Hellebore or Christmas rose.
Hellebore or Christmas rose. Photograph: Liz Seabrook/The Guardian

And now, those of us who can garden have new hope. I’m noticing the first tender cherry blossom and squirrel-gnawed bulbs pushing up shoots, tiny jade-coloured rosettes on my wintering lemon thyme, the sense that life is returning. Glimpses of green keep me going; a sniff of the aromatic cat mint in my friend’s front garden, or checking on the crocuses emerging in the playground, are all that keep me from absolute indolence. Every day I stand at my bedroom window, guiltily eyeing the pots wrapped in ragged bubblewrap and duct tape, trying to ignore the plants’ pleas for freedom as I wait for the frosts to pass. It’s carnage out there: I haven’t washed my seed trays, or de-rusted my tools, as my gardening magazines recommend; it’s all I can do not to run out, right now, in desultory nightwear to sow yet more kale.

But a year of lockdowns has left me wiser, slightly. I’ve learned about friendship, creativity, love and resilience, my huge capacity for joy, and to never trust a vet who says the kittens are male. I still can’t prune or propagate, but I discovered that turmoil, which I’d thought of as salting the earth, is closer to seaweed laid on soil: slow, complicated nourishment. Re-reading Rhapsody In Green, I realise that, under lockdown, my frustrations, ignorance and prejudices speak to so many more of us; we’re all trying to grow parsley on our windowsills, and we’re equally terrible at it. My garden may have changed, but my unexpected love of plants, and the strength they have brought me, is more solid than ever. Everything I wrote, a passionate confession of enthusiasm and desire, holds true in this, our new life, with my new garden.

Rhapsody In Green is out in paperback on 25 March (Octopus). Charlotte Mendelson’s new novel is out next year (Mantle).

By admin

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